Friday, January 18, 2008
(01-18) 04:00 PST Koh Phi Phi,
Within a few hours of reaching Koh Phi Phi Don island, off
Work? Troubles? Banish the thoughts! Only one notion lazed across my mind, a wisp of bewilderment: Hadn't a tsunami devastated this lotus-land only three years ago?
Yes. I'd watched it on the news: The day after Christmas in 2004, waves up to 30 feet tall had hammered mainland resorts and the islands. In Khao Lak, the waves roared almost 2 miles inland, and more than 4,000 people died. Phuket's west coast resorts, including the party capital of Patong, were seriously damaged.
Little Phi Phi, though, had the most dramatic story: The waves swept all the way across this low-lying isle. Two thousand people, a quarter of everyone on the island, died. Resorts and trees were smashed into toothpicks.
So how, then, I wondered, as I gazed at the mature trees and my nearby beachfront bungalow, had this place recovered so well?
Guidebooks often call Phi Phi
Most strangely, all the Thais I'd seen so far, from ferry operators to this masseuse smiling over me now, seemed so serene, even happy. Maybe great chicken satay and a bath-temperature ocean work like Prozac, but still: How had the locals managed to move past their tragedy to welcome tourists with such grace?
Tentatively I asked my masseuse if she'd been on the island during the tsunami.
"Yes," she said and smiled afresh, her gaze warm but not betraying anything - though no doubt she'd lost family and friends.
"Well ... what happened to this beach?"
"No tsunami here." She explained that the waves had crossed Phi Phi only at the center, where the harbor, Ton Sai village, most of the resorts and the locals' homes lay - a 10-minute putt-putt on a longboat from Hat Yao. Other beaches had been spared.
This was good news. I'd thought the entire coastline had been flattened.
The next morning I hailed a longboat, the only motorized transport on roadless Phi Phi, for the 80-baht ($2.50) taxi ride to Ton Sai to check out the situation there.
The geography of Phi Phi is remarkable: two high, vegetation-covered limestone masses connected by a short, low isthmus - really just a sandbar. From the air the island looks like an emerald butterfly floating in a turquoise sea. At the nexus of the wings lies the village.
At the shore I took off my sandals and hopped out into foot-deep water and gritty sand. A few strides up the beach, and I was on the main lane of Ton Sai town.
I'd known this village well, right before the tsunami. In the closest I've come to dying in a disaster, I stayed in one of the adjacent resorts here just three weeks before the waves hit. (See Departures, D4).
But now I had to wonder: Had a tsunami really hit? Ton Sai was a carbon copy of its former self, a cluster of food stands, restaurants, bars, open-air tourist agencies and shops. I recognized the exact same shops selling the exact same stuff: sarongs, jewelry, T-shirts with sassy sayings. One proclaimed, "Same Same" on one side, "But Different" on the other.
Not much was different, though. Le Grand Bleu restaurant, the fanciest in Ton Sai, was even more upscale, but still inexpensive: The dinner special of fish filet with curry coconut and basil leaves was only $6.25. And there was a new, 500-square-foot bookstore. I bought two publications on the tsunami, the large-format, glossy "Back to Koh Phi Phi" and a magazine, "26.12.04: Wrath of the Tsunami," of local newspaper photos.
Over passionfruit gelato, I read that the tsunami on Phi Phi had consisted of two main waves. The first, 15 feet high, had slammed the isthmus from the north, tearing out the resorts and shops in its path and ending up in the opposite bay. Then a new wave roared from that other bay - from the south - smashing the pier and the rest of the village.
Everything was churned. The photographs showed the isthmus as a two-story-high pile of debris tangled with corpses. For 180 days, the island had been uninhabitable. Even the parts that hadn't been directly touched lacked fresh water and other services.
Desperate for dollars
When Phi Phi reopened for tourists, it was desperate for dollars. But for the first year no one came except backpackers who helped with additional clean-up and rebuilding. Divers journeyed here from around the world to hand-dredge the bays. Most of the town - walls, woks, the wallets of the dead - had ended up strewn for miles in the sea.
I finished my gelato and headed toward one of the tourist agencies. The island seemed fully back in business. Whiteboards listed hotels and advertised snorkeling trips, kayaking, scuba diving, rock climbing and boat tours of nearby Phi Phi Leh island, including uninhabited Maya Bay, where "The Beach" was filmed in 1999, making Phi Phi famous.
A female employee wore the island office uniform of T-shirt and shorts.
I asked, "How are you doing now in terms of tourism, compared to before the tsunami? Are all parts of the island ready?"
"All is good but Phi Phi full tonight! No more rooms. Tomorrow OK."
Okay, tourists were back. Good. I tried my more delicate question. "How have the people here, the locals who were here during the tsunami, recovered?"
She was brisk: "How many nights you want stay Phi Phi?"
In other words, "Why should I dwell on my past when I can sell a room to help my future?" That attitude was an answer.
I headed up the formerly ravaged Loh Dalum beach, on the other side of the isthmus from the dock. Pristine white sand was lined with rebuilt bungalows, beach bars, fruit stands, sun umbrellas and hordes of tourists.
The only reminder of the tragedy were "Tsunami Hazard Zone" signs (with the insightful advice, "In case of earthquake, go to high ground") and a few acres that hadn't been rebuilt - yet.
Nearby, workers were slapping up concrete for a resort with a Vegas-style fountain facing the beach: a wall of cascading water. So there, tsunami.
I asked a group of Thai men hanging out in a bar if they'd been here then.
"Yeah," a shirtless one answered. From his shorts pocket he pulled a couple of mini postcards that showed Phi Phi before and after the tsunami. Then he asked if I was single.
I guess he didn't want to talk about the trauma, either.
Next I tried one of the dozens of scuba shops. Maybe I could find a diver who'd helped dredge the bays and also could tell me about the damage to the reefs.
Marcus Bérubé, the Canadian manager of Princess Divers, had been in one of Phi Phi's safest spots during the tsunami - in the water, but far offshore, diving with clients. He'd felt the current but didn't realize what had happened until he was back on the boat, looked toward the island and could see straight over the isthmus. No more buildings to block the view.
"It was surreal," was all he would say about the arrival on shore. "You get to your bungalow and you think, well, I guess it would have been about here, but you have no reference."
After a short trip home to get a new passport, he'd returned to Phi Phi to help clean up the bays, which, he said, now were back to normal. He waxed philosophical about how the reefs had survived.
"Humans can't stand up to it, but Mother Nature builds herself to withstand her own fury. Real fragile coral that humans break easily? A tsunami comes through and the coral's still there."
Coral might remain, but as I popped my head into various accommodation options, I saw that the cheap backpacker beachfront digs were gone. They never were plentiful here, but Phi Phi now totally lacks the $5-a-night huts where guests can swat mosquitos all evening.
Maybe that makes this island expensive in
I did hear complaints that Meuh-la-Pauh ("Mom-and-Pop" in Thai) establishments were being squeezed out. One impassioned former small resort owner asked to remain anonymous, though she couldn't stop pouring out her tale. She'd been kicked off the bungalow property that she and her staff had operated for decades and rebuilt with love. Tragedy always brings out sharks, and now that business was strong again, their long lease had been challenged.
"It's like a second tsunami for us," she lamented.
There were other signs that Phi Phi is at risk of homogenization. The island is still funky - palm-roof architecture and hand-painted signs for mango sticky rice - but some rebuilding is mass-market style. I spotted an eye-level billboard for "Charlie's Plaza," a planned hotel for Loh Dalum beach, near the village. In the rendering, the Plaza resembled a three-story, 1990s
As I explored the island over the next few days, I found farther-flung resorts. On the upper right (northeastern) butterfly wingtip of the island is the truly paradisiacal Loh Bakao. The tsunami didn't touch this spot, occupied solely by the island's most upscale lodging, Phi Phi Island Resort. A half-hour boat ride from Ton Sai, this spot is for lovers of solitude, though water sports are available, plus a spa.
It's possible to make a day-trip of Loh Bakao. A longboat and driver ($50 for a half-day) can take you to your choice of beaches and outlying islands.
The outer islands
Most notable among the nearby islands is Phi Phi Leh, a dramatic limestone karst outcropping. It features
Even without snorkeling equipment, you can see languorous, yellow-and-white butterfly fish, angelfish and parrotfish of rainbow hues. Buy a raft and just look down.
A new option offered by tour agencies is a small-group camping trip in
On my last day, I took a late afternoon tour of Phi Phi Leh. The stunning red karst cliffs glowed in the sunset. I felt sad to be leaving, and even sadder for all the suffering this place had endured.
Suddenly I called to the boat driver. "Is there a memorial for the tsunami?"
"It's under the water in Ton Sai bay" - a small monument marked only by a pontoon.
How appropriate, I thought as we motored to shore. Phi Phi remembers its tragedy, but keeps it beneath a surface of shimmering beauty, ready to offer to us.
FINDING THE BEACH OF YOUR FANTASIES
Sometimes you light upon a place that's exactly like a dream you've had: a protected turquoise bay with a white-sand beach surrounded by craggy cliffs, lush palms and jungle. The only way to get there is by canoe. It's your secret cove.
Once on land, you stay barefoot as you check into your villa. Yes, other people are here, but not many. (The backpackers and young rock climbers - this is the best climbing region in
Maybe you'll choose the Railay Bay Resort and Spa (www.krabi-railaybay.com), at only $130 a night (high season) for a large, elegant room and the pleasure of an infinity pool right on the beach.
From there you can walk a rocky path or, better, paddle a kayak for 15 sublime minutes around the promontory to reach yet another beach, Phra Nang, uninhabited except for a silent, well-guarded resort (the expensive Rayavadee) and a cavern. Fringed with stalactites, this "
Tell me this place isn't a Freudian dream fantasy.
Wade in the emerald waters. Lie in the sun on sugar-sand and open your eyes to the psychedelic display of red-hued karst drippings of rock overhead. Wake up; it's real.
- Cherilyn Parsons
If you go
WHEN TO GO
There are no flights to Koh Phi Phi. From
WHERE TO STAY
If you want nightlife and shops nearby, choose accommodations on Ton Sai or Loh Dalum beach.
For more quiet - but still only a 10-minute longboat taxi ride from the village - Hat Yao is a good choice. I can recommend the Paradise Resort, www.paradiseresort.co.th, $88 in high season for a beachfront bungalow with a/c and breakfast.
For the most solitude and reasonably priced luxury, try the upscale Phi Phi Island Resort, www.ppisland.com, starting at $240/night. Take a mini-vacation from your desk by clicking on the site's icon for "360 Virtual Tour," then the "Beach" section. You'll weep that you're not there right now.
WORD TO THE WISE
Be sure to reserve ahead in high season: The island fills up. If the ferry's left and you're without a reservation, you're stuck.
Railay is on the Thai mainland between Krabi and Ao Nang beach, on a roadless isthmus. You can get there by boat one of three ways - all of which first involve getting to Krabi or Phuket.
From Krabi, all boats (a shared longtail is $10 per person and takes half an hour) go only to
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tourism Authority of Thailand, (800) 842-4526, www.tourismthailand.org.
Cherilyn Parsons last wrote for Travel about